Edward was back.
At least, that was the rumour swirling round the coffeehouse. No-one had told me directly - they never bothered to tell me, the lowly Saturday girl, anything but the essentials, and the return of a popular co-worker, who moved away before I started here, was hardly essential. Apart from that it affected me more than anyone, I silently fumed. For the next seven Saturdays, at least.
When Angela returned from her lunch break and waved for me to go ahead and take mine, I stormed through the kitchen to the tiny break room-come office, in the back of the converted townhouse. Carlisle, the owner, was slouched over his laptop on the sofa.
'Am I fired?' I blurted.
He looked up hazily. 'Bella... sorry... what was that?'
'Are you firing me?' I repeated, parting my high pony tail and pulling, to keep it tight. 'Everyone's excited about the return of someone called Edward, who I distinctly remember being hired to replace. You should have told me yourself - just because I'm only seventeen doesn't mean I don't really, really need this job and-'
'Whoa,' Carlisle said. 'It's not like that. Edward's coming in as assistant manager, so I can lower my own hours - I'll absolutely still need you every Saturday.' His British accent was sincere and reassuring, though I had a feeling it would sound that way even if he were bullshitting me.
'Honestly,' he confirmed. 'We're busier in here all the time, and Esme's been on at me to find someone who can lighten my load for a while now.' His face lit up with the smile that crossed his face whenever he talked about his fiancee. 'And then Edward returned suddenly, and needed something full time… it feels like it's meant to be.'
I released a breath, taking a step back towards the door. 'Okay, thanks. And, umm, sorry, I guess.'
'No way, Bella,' he called after me, shutting his laptop with a sigh. 'Sit your arse down, we're not done yet.'
'You just want an excuse to stop doing your accounts,' I said, venturing back inside.
'No - well, okay, I kind of do, but that's not the point. We need to talk.'
We need to talk. A statement you never want to hear from your boss. Or your boyfriend, apparently, though I didn't know on that score. Reluctantly, I slid onto the armchair opposite him.
'So you are firing me?'
'Why would you keep assuming that?' he asked. 'You've learned fast, you work hard and the customers really like you.'
I swallowed. 'I guess… because your other staff… aren't so keen on me.'
'Your colleagues like you fine,' Carlisle said quickly. Too quickly, and I smiled wryly in return. 'We're like a family, here,' he said eventually. 'And I flatter myself that this is why we get such great staff, who stay as long as they do, and impress local customers and visiting tourists alike. Which in turn is why we're the top rated eatery in Port Angeles.'
I shifted in my seat. 'What's your point?'
'That I sometimes wonder whether you're happy, working here,' he said carefully. 'You're chatty enough with customers, but on your breaks you've always got your nose in a text book and-'
'Of course I'm happy to work here!' I said stiffly. It was true. It was the town I hated. Not Holding Ground Coffeehouse itself, which provided an escape from the rest of it. And not just because of the wages and good tips. 'And I won't bring my homework in with me anymore.'
'I didn't mean you couldn't study at all - I know fitting a job around high school is tough,' he said. 'I just want to let you know that the way to make friends around here, if you want to, is to loosen up a bit; get involved in conversation, even get together with the others socially.'
I stifled a snort. 'That's a bit hard, when they don't ask me.'
'Ah,' he said, 'but there'll be loads more opportunities now, with Edward coming back. He's... well you'll see.'
I rolled my eyes. 'You don't need to be all enigmatic. The photos from his leaving party are on the cork board. Life and soul, by the looks of it.'
'Look of what?' someone with a deep voice asked, from the doorway.
'You, mate,' Carlisle said, jumping up and striding over. They exchanged one of those guy hugs, not too close, pounding each other on the back. When they released each other, Carlisle grinned between us. 'I was reassuring Bella here that although she was hired to replace your Saturday shifts, you aren't replacing her now. Bella, this is Edward.'
'Hi Bella,' Edward said, smiling broadly.
His physical attributes had been clear from the photos. Well balanced features and a hinged jaw beneath thick eye brows, and reddish hair that sprung up from his forehead. He was younger than I'd realised from the photos - not past nineteen, at a guess. And really tall. I moved my gaze down to the floor. 'Hi.'
'Well I must get on with crunching these numbers. Edward - remember the ropes?' Carlisle asked.
'Sure do. Where d'you want me?'
'You're an extra bod today, so just float, and lend a hand wherever needed. Oh, and we've got some new product lines, so learn the codes.'
'Great. Thanks for having me back, boss.' Edward said, opening the door smoothly. 'After you,' he added and for a moment I was confused. Then I realised he was holding it for me.
I shuffled through, still not looking at him. 'Thanks.'
'No problem,' he said. And then, 'Angela was just telling me about you.'
I pursed my lips; annoyed, but not really worried. She can't have said anything too bad - she doesn't know the really bad stuff.
'Excuse me, my break's finished.' I mumbled, darting away.
The tables were my section. Orders were taken at the cash register, but if the customer wasn't taking away then I delivered their drinks to their table, as well as the English cakes, pastries and sandwiches for which we were were famed, and cleared up after they left. Remembering the regulars by name, and pausing for a chat with tourists were key parts of the role, and usually I enjoyed it. But that day, I was pushed out. Edward cleared tables before I got there, delivered every plate the second Angela put it onto the counter, and twinkled at every customer in the process. Yes, twinkled. It was impossible not to notice his gray-green eyes that crinkled at the edges, not with how bright they were. His teeth were shiny too, and they kept flashing as he grinned at customers.
By rushing over to charm each customer, Edward received tips - tips that should have been mine - but which he quickly pocketed. I attacked a sticky table with a dishcloth and glowered at his back as he bounded over to the counter. Thankfully he went straight back there and passed into the kitchen, or perhaps to the office beyond.
I made the most of the next ten minutes, but he returned all too soon. Or at least tried to, because as he passed I reached up and jabbed his arm, pointing with my chin back into the kitchen. He tiled his head quizzically but then followed me.
I rounded on him. 'What. Are. You. Doing?'
'Aren't you meant to be learning some new product codes or something? Go hang out with Angela on the cash register. Or Tyler at the coffee machines. Or Emmett in the kitchen.'
'What's the problem?' he asked slowly, stepping towards me. 'Carlisle told me to help out wherever, so I chose to help you.'
With him so close, it was impossible to avoid looking directly into his face. I took a deep breath. 'He also told you to float,' I said. 'Which doesn't mean staying in one place. Unless you're imitating a floating turd in a toilet bowl?'
'Fine,' he said, sounding injured. I knew it was fake, since his motivation for working my section was clearly the tips.
'Bella?' I heard Carlisle call.
I nipped through to the office, hoping he hadn't changed his mind about firing me. 'Carlisle? What now?'
'Just passing this on,' he said, slinging a small envelope towards me. It jangled as I caught it. 'From Edward,' Carlisle added. 'He felt bad about getting tips in your section and… err… awkward about giving them to you direct.'
'He split them with me?' I appraised the weight of the coins and the thickness of the wad of dollar bills.
'Nope, assistant manager means a higher hourly rate, so he reckoned they should all to go to you.'
I swallowed a few times, then returned to the tables slowly, like the envelope in my pocket was weighing me down.
Edward stalked past silently a moment later and I cleared my throat.
He stopped and raised one eyebrow.
I dropped my gaze down to his shoes. 'Thanks,' I mumbled 'And sorry about before.'
'It's okay,' he said.
His voice was inscrutable so I risked a glance back up at his face. He wasn't twinkling any more.
Edward was in the kitchen for the next few hours, and I threw myself into dealing with the customary mid-afternoon crowd, taking a break from their shopping to enjoy an English scone with strawberry jam and fresh cream, or a wedge of Bakewell tart. The few times when there was a lull in the crowds I glanced around in vain to see if he'd reappeared, hoping fervently that he wasn't the type to bear a grudge; the last thing I needed was for him to push me out before I was ready. Working the upcoming six Saturdays were an integral part of my plan.
When he eventually emerged from the kitchen he was holding a piece of paper. He wove between the tables then exited through the door, before immediately turning his back to the street to fix a notice to the glass.
'What's that? Angela called across the hubbub of customer's conversations.
'Closing at seven tonight,' Edward explained. I frowned, sure I was scheduled to work until close at eight, like normal. 'Staff meeting,' Edward added. 'Carlisle's phoned everyone to come in for it, said he wanted to nip in the bud any rumours that might swirl around the place about job losses. He's paying us all for the hour, of course.'
Shortly before seven, Carlisle began to circle the tables offering gentle encouragement for the remaining customers to finish their food. I heaved dirty dishes through to the kitchen, and loaded the dishwasher. When I returned to the front of the cafe, it was not just empty of customers, but transformed. The guys already working, and the others who had just arrived, had pushed the tables and upright chairs to the edges and moved the comfortable armchairs into a circle. Only one of them was empty, and Angela was headed right for it, so I hesitated. Edward jumped up from his arm chair.
'Here, Bella. I was keeping this one warm for you.'
Before I could tell him I was okay, he'd grabbed a ladder-back chair, set it across the circle, beside Carlisle's, and sat astride it, leaning his arms on the back. I sank down into the one he'd vacated, murmuring a thank you. He winked at me and I looked away quickly. The positive attention was hopefully a signal that he wasn't going to tell Carlisle to get rid of me, but that didn't mean I should encourage it.
'Evening everyone,' Carlisle started. 'Thanks for the full attendance - this time.' Laughter swept around the circle. The three full-timers, Angela, Tyler and Emmett were to his right. I was beside Emmett, then between me and Edward were Rosalie and Ben, who I barely knew. They each stepped in on occasional Saturdays, but mostly pulled a few mid-week shifts. 'First off, I take it you've all already met or become reacquainted with Edward?'
'Welcome back Edward!' Emmet yelled, and the others joined in, whooping and clapping.
'Thanks, great to see you all again,' Edward said, grinning wide. I couldn't avoid noticing that he had smiled with his whole face, so his eyes disappeared into creases.
'Hold off on drinking,' Carlisle said, snatching a bottle of beer that Emmett was passing across to Ben, 'because contrary to popular opinion, this isn't actually a welcome home party for Edward. We only gave him a goodbye party six months ago.' There was more laughter, but the smile had dropped off Edward's face.
'Yeah, what happened?' Rosalie asked. 'You didn't like Paris after all?'
At that, I stiffened. I had assumed he'd left Port Angeles for college at the University of Washington, which was generally the height of aspiration of anyone from around here. But Paris, France - he'd made it not just across the state but out of the whole entire country.
By the time Edward spoke he was smiling again, and I wondered whether I'd imagined that he'd ever stopped. 'Who needs the Sorbonne when they've got all this?' he said, sweeping his arm around as if to encompass all of them, Holding Ground itself, and the crappy town of twenty thousand perpetually damp people nestled in the mossy foot of the Olympic Peninsula.
'Cheers to that!' Ben yelled, grabbing his beer back from Carlisle and holding it up. Edward's evasion seemed to go unnoticed, except by me. Being accustomed to it myself, there was no way I could miss the ways he'd dodged a proper answer. Though what satisfactory answer could there be that would explain a willing return from Sorbonne - one of the top universities in the world, in one of the most popular cities in the world - to Port Angeles? Edward was leaning in to Carlisle, as they quietly conferred over something, and I took the opportunity to examine him. He didn't look as dumb as a rock, but why else choose to come back? Unless… I wondered if he'd had no choice. Maybe he'd flunked out after his first semester, and lost his visa. Which still made him dumb - he should have found a way to make it work somehow. When I got my chance to escape, I vowed silently, I'd never look back, never come back, never even think back to my eighteen years here. Whatever that took to achieve.
Carlisle called us to attention as he referred to a sheet of paper. He ran through some ideas for adding warm soups to the menu, with the weather so chilly, and the staff literally at the top of the food chain considered which recipes to use. There was then brief debate about a new Nigella recipe for polenta lemon cake. The polenta made it more Italian than English, Carlisle reckoned, but Emmett said anything the ultimate Domestic Goddess featured on her show became automatically British, and as the main cook after Carlisle himself, he wanted his opinion heard. As their voices got louder, Edward intervened.
'Vote on polenta lemon cake. Ayes hands up, nays hands down.'
I left mine down, not knowing what polenta was, but there was enough enthusiasm for Carlisle to be overruled. 'We'll trial it,' Edward said, as Emmet pumped his fists. 'Tick that off on your list, boss, and then tell us what's next.'
Carlisle stared at him. 'Assistant manager,' he said, 'Means assistant to me. Not manager of me.' Edward just smirked at him, and told him to get on with it before he had to pay everyone for an extra hour.
'Oh. Right,' Carlisle said, snatching up his sheet of paper hastily. 'See why he's assistant manager everyone? He's saving me money already. Which leads me to the next item - Edward's helping me with the schedules from now on. If we need any changes to your work hours one of us will speak to you about it over the next few weeks, alright? And requests for references, annual leave or swapping shifts can go through him now. No more ringing me at home in the evening about that stuff - I've promised Esme I'll go to more of her gigs.'
Emmett mimed a whipping motion, and everyone giggled. Well, everyone but me.
Carlisle balled up his piece of paper and chucked it hard at Emmett. This kind of malarky generally marked the end of a staff meeting, so I prepared to stand up.
'Finally, and most importantly,' Carlisle hollered, and I slumped back down. 'We've fallen down from 4.9 stars to 4.7 stars in the RestaurantRatings reviews. This leaves us barely a full star ahead of-' most of the room joined in with his next words, 'the crappy chain coffee shops and dismal diners'. Even I couldn't hold in a snicker at Carlisle's response to the loud chorus, staring around us all as if surprised that we'd picked up on his trademark criticism of his rivals. 'Alright, alright,' he said, shaking his head in mock severity. 'Come on folks - this is serious, and I want ideas to get our rating back up!'
We were all silent. Carlisle would have left it at that, but Edward went round asking specific questions about each individuals area of work.
Angela suggested broadening the range of herbal teas, after noticing some requests lately, and Ben had an idea of loyalty cards which Carlisle jotted down to investigate. Edward himself suggested we open an hour longer on Friday evenings for the teen crowd after Football games. Then he said my name. I concentrated on breathing slow and deep, willing myself not to blush as everyone's eyes landed on me. I shook my head.
'Really?' Carlisle asked. 'Nothing?'
I flailed for an idea. 'Books,' I blurted.
'Books?' Edward repeated quizzically.
'It's erm...' I said shakily, searching for the words. 'Some cafe's have a shelf, with a few books on it, and a sign that customers are welcome to drop off a book they've finished or pick up one left by someone else, for free.'
'Nice idea,' Carlisle said, and others murmured assent. I had no idea whether he really liked it, or he had merely seized on an opportunity to shore up my dismal likeability. 'I'll clear one of the newspaper shelves, and check at home tonight for a couple of novels to start it off with.'
'I've got some,' Edward said. 'I'll dig them out tomorrow. Actually, how about all of us donate a few used books, and we get the scheme started by borrowing one of someone elses?'
'It'll increase the level of education around here at least,' Carlisle laughed. 'But good plan. And now we're officially finished, so let me thank you for your time, and you're all dismissed.'
As I rose, stretching out my limbs, which has stiffened after nearly twelve hours on my feet, Edward ventured closer.
'Some of us are heading to that new Irish pub, Bella,' he said quietly. 'Want to come?'
I ground my teeth. Carlisle had put him up to this, after the pep talk about joining in and making friends.
'Can't,' I said bluntly. 'I'm underage.'
'The owner's a friend of Emmett's. No way you'll be ID if you're with us.'
I panicked internally for a moment. 'My Mom's expecting me home,' I croaked eventually. Even as I spoke, I knew it was a terrible excuse for a seventeen year old, early on a Saturday evening. 'She needs help with something.' I added lamely.
Edward held his hands up, like he was surrendering. 'No problem. Go help your Mom - I get it.'
I felt his gaze still on me as I checked my pony tail was still tight, then gathered my coat and bag, and slipped out silently.